Since 2014, artist Tai Shani, a nominee for the 2019 Turner Prize, has constructed hallucinatory environments inhabited by feminine characters adapted from myth, history, and science fiction. This multipart project—encompassing sculpture, graphic images, installations, film, and performance—has taken several forms, one of them culminating in her first book, Our Fatal Magic. Each of the volume’s twelve chapters is an elliptical, phantasmagoric monologue delivered by one of Shani’s figures: a medieval mystic, a cube of flesh embodying the fairy-tale Bluebeard’s multiple murdered wives, even an AI program named after Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory. Several of Shani’s projects have been presented under the rubric “Dark Continent” (or “DC”), a reference to Freud’s infamous description of female sexual psychology—a characterization shaped by the colonial geographic imagination. The setting of Our Fatal Magic is the land of Semiramis, named for the legendary Assyrian queen. Though she does not make an appearance in any of the chapters of Shani’s book, Semiramis is the cornerstone in Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, a fifteenth-century allegory about the contributions of women to human society, which treats its heroines as the structural elements of a new city. The opening Note of Our Fatal Magic refers to the compilation’s source project, “DC: Semiramis,” as an “expanded adaptation” of de Pizan’s book.
Feminist science fiction of the 1970s shares a kinship with de Pizan’s vision, though its authors scaled her city up to entire worlds that either are built by women or exist outside the gender regime. An example of the latter is found in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), about Connie Ramos, an abused woman coerced into a New York mental institution, where she encounters a visitor from a world of sexual and economic equality. Shani alludes to Piercy’s book with a character named for it, but—despite a monologue by Woman on the Edge of Time—Our Fatal Magic has more in common with Joanna Russ’s episodic sci-fi satire The Female Man (1975), about four women who travel to each other’s parallel worlds, one of which, Whileaway, is a world without men, organized around lesbian family units.
Each chapter of Our Fatal Magic, representing as in de Pizan’s text both a part of a city and a resident in it, begins with the refrain: “This is my fatal magic, ok, the first cut is the deepest.” Taking a cue from a 1960s and ’70s hit song revived by Sheryl Crow—one of a few jarring pop culture allusions in the book—the line indicates both an original wound and the continuing possibility of transforming the body. In her introduction to Our Fatal Magic, curator Bridget Crone reads the “cut” as a productive interface where bodies are generated anew by being turned inside out. The fatal magic of each chapter rends open the body to produce new forms—the medieval mystic sees a statue whose “cock protrudes from his pussy.” Semiramis is not a land formed under the aegis of lesbian separatism but instead maps what Shani calls in the first chapter “realities beyond gender.”
Our Fatal Magic takes us to the intimate spaces of female desire (“girlhood beds,” as one of the chapter-opening refrains says) and female trauma (also “girlhood beds”). These are the irrational spaces described in Our Fatal Magic not as situated in geographic space at all but in time, “forever forming, and in perpetual movement.” But of course, all time has a territory. The time of much fantasy literature is not just any past but a Dark Age of northern Europe. The time of science fiction is a future in cyberspace, or outer space, or postapocalyptic ruin.
Some placements are more specific than others. Piercy writes in the foreword to the 2016 edition of her novel that she wanted to take “the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete—that was the real genesis of Woman on the Edge of Time.” Her book lies in the materialist tradition of sci-fi utopias, with detailed descriptions of non-gendered methods of dividing labor and reproduction in a future society. Shani’s work, on the other hand, takes place in a future fantastic, conjured in surreal images of fleshy machines and erotic holograms that disturb gender and sex binaries. Our Fatal Magic casts back to a fantasy of premodern city-states and projects forward into simulated worlds. “No more concrete, glass, or industry,” Shani writes. “Just oozy milk rubble that expands slowly and flows down the street.” In this way she splits with de Pizan, whose noble city was built by the three virtues: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Works by Russ and also by beloved feminist genre writer Ursula K. Le Guin cross promiscuously between fantasy and sci-fi because the authors do not traffic in the rational thinking that distinguishes magic from technology. Shani writes in this tradition, operating in a temporal register that is not exclusively futuristic, as recorded in the prologue to each chapter after the “first cut” refrain: “Deep times, in dark ages, end times, much time ago, beyond the burning witch, silicone and engine, settlement and temple, beyond ape, beyond synthetic ape, beyond flesh or smooth fin or scale or feather, before cell after self-generating cell . . .” These words perform the same function as “once upon a time,” but merge the distant past with the accelerating present and a cybernetic future of artificial organisms. Shani’s text originates in spoken-word performance, and the repetitive invocations that open every section harken back to Homeric verse. Yet unlike an epic, Shani’s book has no hero at the center. In fact, there is hardly a center at all.
In her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Le Guin cribs an unconventional theory of human evolution from Elizabeth Fisher’s Woman’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society (1979), a cult classic of feminist scholarship. Fisher proposes that the first human tool was not a weapon but a receptacle, something that made it possible to collect more than could be held in the hands. By analogy, Le Guin outlines a literary program in which the story is not an instrument of plot, nor a device of action with a single agent, but rather a grouping of collectivized, networked events. Our Fatal Magic is a paradigmatic carrier bag text. It is a fascinating receptacle of suggestive forms. But unlike Piercy’s or Russ’s works, it does not provide nourishment so much as estrangement.
The book has no plot per se. The text’s relationship to progress is summed up by the character of the medieval mystic: “the force of propulsion . . . and the logic of modernity decelerate into absolute stillness till fluid gushes forward into the beyond no longer.” This gooeyness is especially prominent in a later scene narrated from the perspective of a “vampyre” who sleeps at the bottom of the sea with a psychic sea anemone fused to her cunt, occasionally bringing her to lucid awareness through intense orgasm. There have always been crossovers between the genres of horror, sci-fi, and smut, all produced with pulp. Our Fatal Magic combines the unconscious images that proliferate throughout these lowly art forms in a stimulating pastiche of sensations.
The city of women is throbbing. Erotics suffuse almost every page of this imagined metropole. It is animated by carnal lust that slips, as in vampire stories, into bloodlust. Over and over, Shani describes material, from flesh to mineral, as pulsing, shimmering, lumpy. Her “DC: Semiramis” has both an obscure interior and a gushing exterior. The dark continent has always been a fraught metaphor, a racialization of territory, a territorialization of race mapped onto gender. Shani has presented hologram-like images of a dark continent reclaimed from the Freudian connotations. But these visions flicker away too quickly to imagine the world that could bear them.
This article appears under the title “On the Outskirts of the City of Ladies” in the December 2019 issue, pp. 30–32.